Many women recover from alcohol and drug addiction by choosing to replace their addiction with new lifestyles. Contrary to popular belief, some women recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are not doing this for their children or because they suddenly have a “wake up call” about their problem, according to a small study of former addicts.
These women – many of whom are over 35 years old and have a college degree – have played a proactive role in overcoming substance abuse, replacing that addiction with new lifestyles such as school, work, community service, and exercise.
Women face different challenges
Women are the fastest growing segment of drug addicts in the US: Around 2.7 million American women abuse alcohol or drugs, or a quarter of all drug addicts, according to the Federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. According to Ohio University sociologist Judith Grant, there has been little research into women’s stories of how they recover from drug and alcohol addiction.
Grant, a visiting assistant, spent three years at a not-for-profit agency in Canada working as a researcher and educator with more than 300 addicts enrolled in recovery programs. Many of the women faced different challenges than male addicts and developed unique ways to overcome substance abuse, Grant said.
Reasons for quitting drugs
To document her stories, the sociologist interviewed 12 Canadian women and 14 Ohio women who have been drug and alcohol free for at least 18 months. She presented preliminary results at the American Society of Criminology meeting in Chicago.
“While this study may not reflect all addicts, it does imply that some of the previous studies have misrepresented addiction recovery in women. One concept that belies the analysis is that women give up drugs and alcohol for the benefit of their children,” Grant said . “Children are important, but if these women don’t recover on their own, they generally fall behind.”
Dig up your real self
Nor could the women indicate a “turning point” that led to their recovery; For most, awareness of the need to overcome their substance abuse has been a slow process, Grant noted. And their success in recovery did not depend on changing their identities from “addicted” to “ex-addicted” as the literature suggests, but on discovering their true selves.
The women viewed drug and alcohol use as an activity they were involved in, not an identity they had assumed. “They’re bringing back an old identity, before they got addicted, before the violence and substance abuse,” she said. “Now that’s really me,” they say. “The blanket is gone.”
Replace addiction with another passion
Half of the women in the study had used a program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to help overcome the addiction, but the other half succeeded on their own. All women have replaced addiction with another passion in their life, said Grant, which ranges from physical activity to volunteering to school. Some are now caring for other women to overcome addiction.
Participants began using drugs or alcohol in their teens or early 20s to mask the pain of violence and incest in the family, Grant said. All reported having an addicted family member as well. These experiences resulted in crippling self-esteem, a topic that applies specifically to these women’s stories.
Addiction related to domestic violence
“To this day, I’ve never heard a male addict talk about a lack of self-esteem in my work,” said Grant, who hopes her findings will be of use to addiction recovery agencies and other organizations that help women. The strong link between domestic violence and substance abuse should be recognized by addiction recovery centers and battered women’s shelters, which tend to treat each problem in isolation.